Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published in “Life in Durham”

‘It can happen to any one of us’: Gathering remembers cyclist killed in hit-and-run

At 10:30 a.m. on July 24, the quiet of Westover Park was broken by the sound of bike chains churning. Cyclist after cyclist began to appear, hauling  bikes from cars and  emerging from side streets and trails. 

A young man walked his bike over the hill into the crowd and patted a friend on the back. “How you doing, man?” he asked. His friend sighed and gave a strained smile.

At the top of the hill, at the Guess Road crosswalk, stood a white-painted bike. Flowers embellished the spokes, and notecards with well-wishes were pinned to the wheels. Candles and makeshift vases made out of water jugs blanketed the sidewalk under the bike.  

The ghost bike is a memorial for Matthew Simpson, a Durham cyclist killed in a recent hit-and-run.

Simpson, 40, was on a morning ride home on July 10 from the Museum of Life and Science with his wife, Allison, and their two children when he was struck by a driver. He later died from injuries. The incident occurred on Guess Road, which cyclists must cross while riding the mostly off-road West Ellerbe Creek Trail. 

Bike Durham, a local nonprofit that advocates alternatives to automobile transportation, rallied the local cyclist community for a memorial “ride of silence” on July 24 to honor Simpson’s life.`

Like many of the attendees, local cyclist Scotty Mathess did not know Simpson personally, but that did not stop him from showing up to the memorial. “I didn’t know Matt, but anyone who’s in the neighborhood uses this crossing—kids, parents, the elderly—so when you know that it can happen here, you know it can happen to any one of us.”

By 11:15, the sun glinted off dozens of plastic helmets and sunglasses as volunteers milled through the circles of people, handing out neon yellow visibility vests and black armbands. Cyclists typically wear these bands as a symbol of solidarity and mourning while they complete their silent ride. 

Near the crowd, a line stretched across the small wooden bridge leading to the bike memorial. People holding armfuls of candles, flowers and ribbons knelt before the ghost bike, lost in prayer or remembrance.

Allison Simpson took her turn at the bike in silence, eyes closed and tears streaking her face. An older couple stood at her right and left, ready to walk her back into the park, arm-in-arm.

As the crowd gathered back together, Tallmadge held up a small thin microphone and  the chatter quieted.

Talllmadge’s low voice echoed faintly through the park as the crowd stood still, with bikes by their sides. “It’s important to come together in moments like these,” he said, “to share in our grief and lean on one another in support.” Allison Simpson then took the microphone from Tallmadge. 

Simpson was an engineer, originally from Easley, South Carolina. He met Allison in Washington, D.C., before the two moved to Durham in 2014. He was an avid hiker and cyclist, as well as a musician. They became partners in 2006 and married in 2014.

He was a dedicated father to their children Wallace, 4, and Matilda, 22 months, she said.

“I wish everyone here could know him fully,” she said, glancing up at the crowd. “I hope that we can work together to honor his life, the beautiful life that he lived, and also to keep our community safe, so that we can all enjoy it.”

Allison gingerly returned the microphone to Tallmadge and walked back amid muffled sobs to the small pocket of friends and family waiting for her with arms outstretched.

Simpson’s death has sparked fear and anger in the cycling community, with many taking to neighborhood listservs and Twitter. Some, like Mathess and Beth Doyle, called for infrastructure changes like a raised crosswalk or a full stoplight at Guess Road, where the accident happened.

Attendees of the memorial ride echoed those sentiments. 

“Until the physical environment is redesigned and rebuilt to separate high-speed motor traffic from vulnerable road users, it’s just gonna keep happening. No end in sight,” said Mathess in an interview at the gathering.

Others like Stephen Mullaney, a Bike Durham staff member, condemned the culture of drivers that teaches a lack of respect for cyclists sharing the road. 

Drivers should take responsibility if they injure a cyclist or pedestrian, he said in an interview, despite the possible consequences: “If it’s an accident, stop and help.”

After words from Simpson’s college friend and a member of GoDurham, Tallmadge instructed the group of 146 to prepare for the ride. 

They began by crossing Guess Road at the site of the accident. The ride continued for three miles, Tallmadge said, passing the Simpson home on Virginia Avenue before returning to Westover Park.

As the group passed the Simpson home, they waved to Allison and her two children, he said. A chorus of bike bells filled the air as they rode past. 

Above (from top): A ghost bike memorializes cyclist Matthew Simpson, who was killed in a recent hit-and-run; cyclists participated in a memorial ride to remember Simpson on July 24. Photos by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal

The Poetry Fox speaks: Chris Vitiello on costumes, street poetry and shared humanity

Since before he knew what a typewriter was, Chris Vitiello had a way with words. As a child, the poet and communications strategist dictated poems to his parents aloud. Perhaps it was destiny that he would stumble upon a giant fox suit and grapple with the question posed by a 2013 viral video: What does the fox say? 

Apparently, quite a lot. Vitiello handed out his 35,000th poem as the Poetry Fox this April. When he dons the vulpine costume— a gift from a relative, who gave it to him as a joke 11 years ago instead of tossing it into a dumpster— he tackles themes of love, change, politics and even mortality.

On a recent Saturday, Vitiello sat behind a typewriter at the Durham Farmers’ Market. Barefoot in the dewy morning grass, perhaps to cool down from the heat of the fuzzy fox suit, he waited expectantly for poetry-seekers. 

Within a few minutes, curiosity had drawn a father and his two young sons to the stand. The sons presented the Fox with a single word. After chatting with the patrons, Vitiello pulled the costume over his head, entering what he calls “the smallest studio space in the world.” 

The keys clattered loudly beneath the Fox’s fingers, which poked out from amber-colored sleeves. Roughly forty-five seconds later, he presented a complete poem. In his trademark style, the lines were “cut up all over the page,” deviating from standard structures such as sonnets or limericks. The brothers beamed as their father dropped a donation into his jar (labeled “TIPS in $$$ or live chickens”).

In his years as the Fox, Vitiello has heard prompts ranging from “pickle” and “sunrise” to “gun” and “change.” Though the words he receives vary, his role as the Fox is the same whether he’s booked at a charity event, a birthday party or a wedding. With a vintage typewriter by his side, he creates custom poetry on demand that has reached people from all walks of life.

When he’s not in costume, the only thing that gives away Vitiello’s alter ego is the fox tattoo inked on his left forearm. The D.C. native is a published author and editor (“I have three books as a human, not as a fox,” he clarified). He has also ventured into other forms of street poetry, and most recently, screenwriting and filmmaking. He’s a father of two young adult children.  

“It’s always fun when you have a family member who does something kind of weird,” he said with a smile. “My kids have grown up with me being the Poetry Fox. So this is just what we do.” 

Vitiello, 53, had been an active member of Durham’s arts community for several years when the idea came to him. It was a weekend night at The Space, a downtown gathering place for creatives including writers, performers and filmmakers.

“We’d have somebody playing some music and we’d be screening a film and we’d have some kind of activity. And this was just a night of several strange things going on,” he said. 

“And I thought, ‘Oh, well, I’ll write and I can put [the fox costume] on and do it.’ You know, it was just sort of a very just spur of the moment, spontaneous kind of decision.” The Poetry Fox was born. 

As early shows gained traction, audience members began asking him to perform at other gatherings. He now appears at upwards of 150 community events per year.

Chris Tonelli, author and founding editor of the independent poetry press Birds LLC, attended some of the Fox’s first gigs without knowing the identity of the larger-than-life canine at the typewriter. He was excited to find out that the Fox was also the author of Irresponsibility, a book he’d recently devoured.

The two connected through the Triangle’s poetry community and now work alongside one another in the library department at North Carolina State University. Tonelli described his colleague as “the model arts community citizen.”

“[Vitiello is] always saying yes, always trying new collaborations, always open to crazy ideas that will really be interesting to the community and will help the community. Very, very selfless in that way,” he said. 

For instance, Vitiello created “The Cabinet” last year in the midst of the pandemic,  inspired by Victorian fortune-telling cabinets. When he sits inside the seven-foot mahogany wardrobe, he is concealed completely from view. This sense of anonymity, he says, can foster meaningful connection. Passersby fill out cards with their fears, hopes, memories, or secrets and enter them into a slot. From inside, Vitiello types and returns a poetic, personal response. 

The Fox is selfless, Tonelli noted. He gives away his work rather than adding to his own repertoire. And then there’s the sheer volume of poetry Vitiello has written as the Fox. An average poetry book, Tonelli said, is around 100 poems; the Fox has produced the equivalent of 350 books. 

Some of his poems confront contemporary political issues, such as climate change, gun control and abortion rights. When he gives them away, he hopes that those who don’t see eye-to-eye find them thought-provoking, “both fulfilling and undermining expectations.” Though he has received some criticism for his political writing, he doesn’t take it to heart. 

“I usually just write back saying, ‘It looks like we disagree on this.’ I’m not going to attack somebody as the Fox,” he laughed.

To Vitiello, the most memorable moments as the Fox are when he’s able to connect with his patrons beyond the surface level. He recalled a recent event where an attendee shared a deeply personal experience.

He sat down and told me that his father had just recently passed away and he didn’t have anything else to say,” Vitiello said. “So I wrote him the poem and it was…I couldn’t tell you exactly what the poem was, but it was a really moving experience.” 

He paused. “That’s a poem that connects me and him now for a long period of time. So, those are the memorable ones. It’s the interaction that’s memorable, not the poem.”  

Vitiello plans on continuing his work as the Fox indefinitely, illuminating his patrons’ most defining moments. He composes lines about births and deaths, weddings and divorces, hopeful beginnings and bittersweet endings. 

Vitiello sees certain common threads running through the human experience. It’s of no importance to him whether the recipient of his poems is a kindergartener or a grandmother.

“Everybody eats, everybody puts on clothes,” he said. “Everybody goes to sleep and wakes up. Everybody likes trees and birds. Everybody looks at the sky. There’s a huge number of shared experiences and…the Fox’s writings draw upon that strongly.”

At the market on Saturday, he was presented with the word “reflection.” He wrote:

 

                                   choppy waters

          don’t show you 

                                your face

 

         waves whipped

                               into froth

by storms

               overpower

        your name

              and your thoughts

 

       but soon

the winds die down

                      the sky 

clears

                                and the water

          becomes a mirror

 

so you can see

  your reflection at last

 

                              and know more 

          about who you are

 

         wait 

all night

                  until the calm 

  of morning

 

                          and then

     look long

            into the water

 

Above (from top): Chris Vitiello, aka the Poetry Fox, spins poems on demand at the Durham Farmers’ Market. Photos by Ana Young — The 9th Street Journal

 

The tale of the ten little mill houses

On April 22, a cryptic Craigslist advertisement titled “Durham FREE Historic Houses (10) YOU MOVE: Act fast!” rattled Durham Facebook groups and email inboxes. Local preservationists quickly identified the properties as remnants of the once-prosperous Erwin Mill Village—parcels recently acquired by Wood Partners, an Atlanta-based developer and manager of high-end apartments. Three days later, the listing was flagged for insufficient information and removed, leaving unanswered the question of who posted the ad—and what would become of the houses.  

It’s been three months since that ad and the story of the homes has come into focus, revealing an unusual tale of preservation, bulldozers and the tension between old and new Durham.  By July 11, the 10 historic homes on Rutherford and Bolton streets have dwindled to seven. The other three, 738, 736 and 732 Rutherford, were heaps of deformed roofing, fractured wooden planks and forgotten household necessities. The sides of the remaining structures were tagged “Abate” in sloppy magenta spray paint with a number assigning their place in the demolition timeline—a timeline set to be complete by the end of July. 

For Tom Miller, president of Preservation Durham, the nonprofit that has led efforts to protect the houses, the story of the Erwin Mill Village homes represents a missed opportunity.

“Whether Wood Partners was responsible for the Craigslist ad or not—it wasn’t a bad idea,” says  Miller. “Wouldn’t things have been better if Wood Partners reached out to us back when they first got control of the property? Then, they could have made themselves local heroes.” 

A WINDOW INTO DURHAM’S WORKING-CLASS PAST 

To the average eye, the mill houses on Rutherford and Bolton streets are not remarkable. But to Miller and Chris Laws, the remnants of the old Erwin Mill Village, illustrate Durham’s working-class origins.

So when Laws saw the Craigslist ad on April 25—emailed to him by Cathleen Turner, regional director of Preservation North Carolina —he took notice. Laws opened the email, clicked, and found a broken link. But, for Laws, a fourth-generation Durhamite with familial ties to the mill, the headline and the words “act fast” lingered. He and Miller grew determined to save the old mill houses.   

 “In historic preservation, it is seductive to find the great man’s mansion and save it. Who doesn’t like that?” says Miller. “We get to experience a bit of HGTV in our neighborhoods. But that’s not always where the history is.” 

“Durham’s history is in these worker houses,” says Miller. “A home is where life happens: where mom and dad lived, where the piano lessons occurred, where kids did homework, where people grew old. Some families have lived in these homes for over a century. We need to refocus our energy on these stories.”

The mill homes at Rutherford and Bolton tell the story of a vanishing Durham. In the late 19th century, cotton magnate William Erwin envisioned a self-contained community for textile mill workers in West Durham. So, he built a village: 440 residences, a company store, an auditorium, a playground, a zoo, and more. In 1986, West Durham—including the mill village area—was named to the National Register of Historic Districts—a designation that recognizes historical significance but grants no regulatory protections. Today, there are 25-30 surviving mill houses in Durham—including the seven parcels at Rutherford and Bolton, all that remains of Erwin Mill Village.

To Chris Laws, the mill village’s history is personal. Laws’ grandfather, a mill worker,  attended Durham High School during the day and worked the third shift at night. Every morning he returned to his humble abode on 14th (now Rutherford) Street.

With a swipe of a finger, Laws leafs through memories stored in his iPhone photo gallery. He beams as he shares a digitized home video: a shaky frame that captures Laws, an infant at the time, and his grandfather lounging in the side yard of their family home in the mill village. 

He swipes again, stopping at a photo that shows dozens of people, dressed in winter attire and crammed in a narrow mill house kitchen.

 “At times, there would be 83 people in these little houses for communal gatherings,” says Chris. “Two generations removed, we’ve continued the annual Laws Christmas party tradition—a tradition that started in this mill village.”

The modest homes will be replaced with a six-story apartment complex of 336 units. The development is the latest of many new apartment buildings springing up across Durham in recent years. Rents for the apartments have not yet been set, a spokesman for Wood Partners said. When asked if the development will include any affordable units, Wood Partners did not respond. Rents at a neighboring Woods Partners property, Station Nine, range from $1583 a month for a small one-bedroom unit to $2937 for a two-bedroom unit. 

Laws sighs at the idea of another high-end apartment building in the Bull City. 

“Yes, we need places to house Durham’s growing population,” says Laws. “But we also need to address that people are being displaced by luxury development.” 

Laws and Miller were both steeped in the mill village’s history. So when they learned that the Rutherford Street houses were coming down, they were determined to do something. Miller emailed Wood Partners, hoping to discuss the mill homes. Weeks went by, and the email was unanswered.     

MISSED CONNECTIONS 

By late May, Laws and Miller became concerned that they had not heard back from Wood Partners. On May 21, they called the firm’s branch at Chapel Hill, where their calls went to a greetlingless voicemail box. They left several voicemail messages all saying essentially the same thing:

We are interested in the possibility of saving the historic houses on your property at Bolton and Rutherford streets in Durham. We would like to talk to you about the homes and how we might work together to save some of them. 

No call back. So on May 25, Laws decided to visit the Chapel Hill branch himself and met briefly with the branch’s managing director, Caitlin Shelby.

“She didn’t have much time to talk. But she told me that they did not put up the Craigslist ad. She said she did not know where it came from.”  

According to Laws, Shelby said that demolition of the homes would begin in a few days (it wouldn’t actually begin for another month). Laws offered his business card and personal cell number, and Shelby promised to follow up, Laws says. He left the office optimistic.  

Meanwhile, Miller made inquiries with groups that might be able to use the homes, such as Durham Community Land Trustees. The affordable housing nonprofit expressed interest in discussing the options, said asset manager Sherry Taylor. 

“It would take a good amount of funding,” Taylor said. “The trust would need a good assessment of the structures. They may need to be renovated. But, we’re interested in figuring out what the possibilities could be.” 

Laws and Miller were not naive. They have long known the hurdles associated with moving a historic structure. Still, they hoped—at least—for a meeting and conversation with Wood Partners.

“I mean, we’re not kidding ourselves,” Miller said in early July. “You don’t just come around and pick up a house. You have to get all kinds of permissions. And the power company goes nuts! The railway hates it. It takes time. But if there were a way that these folks could work with us, we would be delighted. And I don’t see how it could hurt them.”

SALVAGING A BIT OF HISTORY

 The weeks ticked by, and Preservation Durham did not hear from Caitlin Shelby or Wood Partners.

On July 1, Miller and Laws mailed a letter to Wood Partners’ corporate office in Atlanta.

On July 6, the first of the 10 homes, 738 Rutherford, toppled. Locals in the Teardowns of Durham Facebook group shared photos of the once neat and quiet street, now marred with red caution tape and demolition equipment, framed by sad and angry emojis.            

The next day, a fretful Chris Laws drove to Rutherford Street, hoping to, at long last, discuss the homes with somebody with hands on the project. He pulled up in front of 736 Rutherford, where a sunburnt contractor in a fluorescent green t-shirt with the Wood Partners logo directed excavation machinery to remove scraps. Laws told the contractor about the community campaign to save the houses. It was the first he had heard of it. 

Preservation Durham works with partners who renovate historic buildings, and those projects often require using vintage materials.

Laws asked the contractor for permission to collect architectural salvage—windows, doors and door knobs, and the contractor agreed to check into it. “If we were able to collect windows, for example, that would be helpful,” says Laws. “And it would give new life to another space.”

On Friday, July 8, 736 Rutherford was demolished. The remains were trucked away, leaving an empty lot.

The next day, in response to an inquiry from The 9th Street Journal, Caitlyn Shelby of Wood Partners released a statement:

As part of our commitment to positively impacting the communities we serve, Wood Partners is always happy to coordinate with our neighbors in Durham, and we are open to speaking with Preservation Durham in response to their interest in potentially salvaging materials/sections from the mill houses prior to the completion of demolition in the coming week. While we did not participate in any way in posting the previous Craig’s List advertisement, we will aim to keep the community abreast of the latest developments surrounding this project and will share information regarding intended plans for the complex via the property website as those become available. 

On July 11, 732 was also bulldozed, leaving another empty lot. On July 13, Chris finally spoke with Wood Partners. 

“It was a pleasant conversation,” Laws said. “She said she would talk to the site superintendent about pulling some things. From what I understand, someone from the firm will contact me—but I do not know when that will be.”

On July 14, interior doors, a kitchen counter, and a box of light fixtures appeared on the front porches at 711 and 721 Bolton Street. 

On July 15, bulldozers clawed ground on the three newly leveled parcels at Rutherford Street. Discarded red caution tape drapes from electric poles and trees. The seven remaining structures awaited demolition.

Chris Laws still doesn’t know who posted the Craigslist ad, he said. He wishes things could have ended differently. 

“I just wish we could have effective dialogue,” Laws says. “I don’t think they understand how important these places are to the community. They are physical reminders of our heritage.”

“I’m sad, but I can’t mourn. There is still a lot of history at peril in Durham. So, we will press on. Hopefully, we learn something from this, and we will be better for it.”

Above (from top): Bulldozers demolish a home at 738 Rutherford Street; more Rutherford Street houses await demolition; a mysterious Craigslist ad said the houses were free for the taking; Chris Laws of Preservation Durham. Photos by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal 

With pools often shuttered, parents and kids seek out shade and “spraygrounds”

It’s 97 degrees, and at Forest Hills Park, children sprint up the playground stairs and chase each other down the slides. “Tag, you’re it!” they scream. Like clockwork, when a few minutes in the sun have passed, they soothe soon-to-be burnt skin by running through a “sprayground” — water that mists from colorful metal tubes. When it is time for a breather, the kids head to the shade, where parents offer snacks and water bottles.

Less than 100 feet from the playground, a fence gate padlocks the entrance to the pool. On a typical summer’s day scores of people would crowd into the water. But today, the pool sits empty. No submerging and simmering down from the hot and humid air, it appears. 

Forest Hills Pool is one of three public outdoor swimming pools in Durham, the others being Hillside and Long Meadow. Yet, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, none of them is open. Hillside is not open on Saturdays either. But on the days they are open, each is only available for swimming for four hours during the afternoon. On Saturdays, Forest Hills and Long Meadow are open between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.

“That’s such a restricted time frame,” says Taylor McCarther, who recently moved to Fletchers Chapel Road from Greensboro with her two young sons and partner Ben. “Yeah, it’s kind of weird that it’s just that chunk of time. I mean, I get it. But not really.”

As she says this, her younger son, Kayden, tears up before he walks toward the shade.

“You’re the one standing in the sun,” she says playfully.

The city has seen temperatures soar beyond 90 degrees 10 times since July began. Staffing issues have hampered Durham since the outdoor pool season started in early June. There’s a lifeguard shortage — not just on the local level but statewide and nationally. 

The American Lifeguard Association says the lack of lifeguards affects one-third of the nation’s pools. Pools in the three most populated cities in North Carolina — Greensboro, Charlotte and Raleigh — have found themselves understaffed. 

Even some of the country’s major cities such as Seattle, Denver, Chicago, Houston and Boston have struggled with shortages.

“I recently learned that there is a city in Michigan that is paying $27 an hour to try and entice lifeguards to work for them,” says Jason Jones, assistant director of Durham Parks and Recreation. The average lifeguard salary in the U.S. is $13.94 per hour, according to Indeed.com.

To address the shortage, Parks and Recreation partners with Durham Aquatic School to provide free lifeguard certification training for participants 16 and over. It also offers a competitive salary. The city government website says that lifeguards for Durham pools make between $17.99 and $21.56 an hour, which Jones says makes it the highest pay for lifeguards in the Triangle. 

He says no one has called his department to voice concerns about the reduced pool opening hours.

Jenny Rendon, who has lived in Durham for 18 years, used to take her children — who are 8, 9, and 20 months old — to the pool once or twice a week. But this summer’s restrictive schedule changed that.  

“That’s one of the biggest things, that sometimes with those schedules and depending on the distance, for example, if I go to the….closest one, you know, it’s not [always] available on the day that I want to go take my kids,” Rendon, a homemaker, says.

“You know, some people don’t have enough personnel, staff, to run their places,” she adds, referring to the Department of Parks and Recreation. “So I don’t blame it on them.” 

When swimming in a public pool is not an option, spraygrounds are an alternative. They are open seven days a week, for free, at four parks throughout the city: East End, Edison Johnson, Forest Hills and Hillside. Each operates between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m.

McCarther and her family have spent many days exploring water spots, such as Jordan Lake and the Eno Quarry. Since moving to the area, they have come to Forest Hills Park twice. They liked it because it is surrounded by a forest. The family has also been visiting other playgrounds around the city, seeking to get the children outside to play — and get wet. 

As she sits on a shaded bench, McCarther, who is in her mid-to-late 20s and expecting her third child, watches children at the park play. Next to her lie orange peels and a red-and-white soda cup.

Her little boys are part of the crew of children making use of the sprayground this afternoon. The older one, Kellan, almost 4 years old, is an “outside child,”she says. He has “super-high energy, and playgrounds are always just perfect for him to just let all that energy out. Sun beating down on him, letting that energy out.” 

Kellan runs around in a soaked red T-shirt that his mother says will be dried out by the sun. Kayden, 18 months old, stomps, chasing his brother in a navy blue fox-themed onesie and a diaper.

“They don’t need swim trunks,” McCarther says. “They don’t need any of the extra specialties. Like if it’s there, they’re ready to go—dirt, mud, water, sand—they love it.”

Above: With Forest Hills Pool (top) and other swimming pools open limited hours, Taylor  and Kayden McCarther (center) seek out shade. Photos by Ana Young — The 9th Street Journal

‘Empowering people to tell their own stories’: DJ Rogers on being Durham’s first Poet Laureate

When DJ Rogers was 9, he could not read fluently. Rogers’ ADHD made it nearly impossible to get through long texts, his attention span waning too quickly to finish a page. Medications did nothing but put him to sleep. Growing up in South Raleigh as one of 14 children and lacking accommodations for his disorder, he felt like school was a place where he could never succeed.

In the third grade, Rogers’ teacher, Mr. Peterson, and his assistant, Ms. Cook, saw an opportunity to change Rogers’ experience. The two approached the struggling student with works by famous poet and activist Langston Hughes.

Suddenly, things clicked. The pieces were creative and eloquent, but short enough for Rogers to read without losing focus. He pored over the stanzas, learning words and phrases and structure and prose. Soon, he taught himself to read and write poetry of his own.

“Seeing that there were writings in a book that were this long was incredible to me,” Rogers said. “I was like, I can do this.”

To this day, poetry shapes Rogers’ language–and now, he will bring that language, passion, and talent to the public as Durham’s first Poet Laureate. 

The Durham City Council announced his one-year term, beginning on July 1, as a leader in the arts and culture community on June 22. 

Just over one year ago, a group of local poets–Dasan Ahanu, Crystal Simon Smith, and Chris Vitiello–went to the City Council’s Cultural Advisory Board to propose the creation of the position.

“I feel like there’s been some splintering and loneliness among the poetry world,” said Vitiello, who has been part of the Durham poetry scene for almost 30 years. “I think to have a publicly recognized poet doing public events is a good point of conversation for the arts to gather around and for writers to find each other.”

The Poet Laureate will bridge the gap between Durham and its poetic arts scene by bringing the  craft to the streets and the schools. Beyond writing commemorative poems for Durham events, Rogers will showcase his work through readings in the community and lead educational opportunities to encourage arts involvement across the city.

“I wanted [the Laureate] to not just be someone who kind of sits in the studio or writing studio and writes poetry and publishes books,” Smith said. “I wanted somebody who was going to bring poetry into our various communities, particularly our vulnerable communities, and use that tool to bring us together.”

Rogers’ quiet, calm presence would make anyone comfortable. He speaks in sentences with no clear ending, figurative language embellishing his ideas like flecks of gold. Narrative and prose poetry flow out of him naturally. Poetry is the foundation of his speech and thinking, and it is how he tells his own story.

A University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill graduate, Rogers, 33, has been involved in teaching, activism, and the arts for over 12 years. His first experience with teaching came when he helped to found Building Bonds, Breaking BARS (Barriers Against Reaching Success) in his junior year of college. This group raised awareness of the African-American male school-to-prison pipeline. Its members also went into juvenile detention centers to work with youth, teaching subjects such as black history to help spread knowledge of subjects typically overlooked in school systems.

Rogers, a tall man with long hair and a full beard, began his journey as a teaching artist after he graduated in 2011. He helped form a slam poetry team at UNC called the Wordsmiths. The group trained for regional and national competitions of spoken word performance. Rogers served as an “idea generator” for the new group, he said, and a coach for the budding poets.

Former Wordsmiths managing director Kat Tan, 25, explained that Rogers always encouraged his students to embrace the full scope of themselves. “I think the biggest thing for me,” she said, “is that he took my perspective seriously.” 

She worked with Rogers for three years in the group while he was community advisor. “He reminds me a lot of a preacher sometimes, and that is something elevating,” the medical school student said. “It does inspire you to see how you might play a role in a larger story.”

“I love slam because it does encourage people to write,” Rogers said, “and that is one of my goals—I want people to be writing and to generate work, to take their ideas and bring them to the audience.”

Rogers worked with the Wordsmiths from 2011 to 2020 (when the national poetry slam competition was put on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic). At the same time, he introduced teens to the creative arts through projects like the Street Scene Teen Center and the group Sacrificial Poets.

The nonprofit Sacrificial Poets uses poetry to develop artistic and personal growth in youth around the Triangle. Rogers, as executive director and teaching artist, co-led workshops with youth in middle and high schools as part of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City and Orange County Sschools’ Boomerang program. The program works with students suspended from school and provides them the opportunity to make up lost credit hours with development classes and activities, one being Rogers’ poetry activities.

“I worked with a lot of students who were having a lot of issues pertaining to their home life or mental health,” Rogers said. “They had written these poems that were brutal to read and listen to. But they were the story that they needed to tell and being able to do so allowed them to feel heard and listened to in a way that fostered communication between them.”

Much of Rogers’ philosophy of teaching poetry stems from this idea of self-expression. “Empowering people to tell their own stories,” he said, “is something I’ve seen be transformative for people of all ages and walks of life over my years of doing this work.” 

His experience with Sacrificial Poets revealed to him his passion for teaching, he said. Rogers has taught at multiple schools and now works as an instructional coach and teacher at Art of Problem Solving, a national virtual program, providing administrative guidance for the school’s English teachers.

“I wasn’t someone who grew up knowing that I wanted to be a teacher, educator, or artist,” Rogers said. “I was just somebody who tried to find my niche and also tried to build a future where I could then use what I had to help other people.”

In his piece, “I would love to applaud but I am too tired,” he writes: 

To be a black man

and an educator

is to be

a voodoo doll —-

a thing that holds others’

Pain.

Every one of us that dies

feels like they swept through my classroom —-

not a ghost, a needle.

Intentional and precise.

He plans to use his new position to develop poetry and creative workshops in Durham’s housing projects. Residents of the projects are often forgotten, said Rogers, but they have just as much art to share as the rest of the city. He hopes that as laureate he can bring recognition and resources to those communities and others so they can tell their stories. 

“I don’t want to find their voice, because they already have it, but to engage with them in a new way, to say ‘This is how I want to tell my story.’ To say ‘This is important to me because I was here and nobody can take that away from me.’ Just to say ‘I’m here now—nothing’s gonna change that.”

Above: Durham Poet Laureate DJ Rogers. Photo by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal

For Erwin Road cyclists, the question is where to draw the line

Cars zip past the small sidewalk, blurs of metal and exhaust. Pedestrians run across streets, and sidewalks appear to be an afterthought. Five lanes of traffic screech to a halt at one stop light, drivers fuming impatiently as they wait to hit the gas. Bikes pedal furiously in front of cars driving far too close for comfort.

Along other roads, simple white lines separate tons of speeding steel from riders protected only by plastic helmets and their own cycling skill. The presence of bike lanes may seem like a no-brainer. But along Erwin Road, where bike lanes are a rarity, painting those white lines is not so simple.

Starting this week, Erwin Road is being resurfaced from Main Street to Cameron Boulevard. The resurfacing gives an opportunity to create new bike lanes, pedestrian crosswalks, and other alternative transportation lanes by restriping the road. But the decisions rest in the hands of the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), which owns and maintains the road, along with other heavily traveled arteries. 

And the clock is ticking on the resurfacing design plans, due by the end of August.

Erwin Road has long been known as a dangerous corridor for walkers and cyclists, with 45 pedestrian and 10 bicycle crashes over the last 14 years. Transportation advocacy nonprofit Bike Durham and other concerned cyclists hope to get their wheels in the door by pressuring the city and state to address their many concerns about bike and pedestrian safety.

Dismounting from their bikes after their weekly Thursday night ride on Erwin Road, a group of Bike Durham cyclists congregated over picnic tables, bemoaning cycling issues over their post-ride meal: wings and fries from Heavenly Buffaloes.

“I’ve had a number of incidents where people coal-roll me,” said James Nishimuta, a former board member of Bike Durham. Scotty Mathess, a local cyclist sporting a baseball cap reading “One Less Car,” groaned. 

“Coal-rolling,” they explained, can happen when cyclists approach a diesel truck. A truck driver presses a button to release black fumes onto a biker behind them as a sort of punishment for sharing the road. Bikers are engulfed in a cloud of smoke, coughing and unable to see. 

And coal-rolling is not the only danger cyclists face. Nishimuta recounted the time when he was riding to the Eno River with his children on small backroads.  A driver close-passed him and laid into his horn, shouting “Get the f*** off the road!”

“Do you know how loud horns are when you’re outside the car?” Mathess chimed in. The others nodded in agreement, solemnly dipping their fries into the ketchup.

Bike Durham’s goals include “zero fatalities, zero disparities in access, and sustainability,” said the group’s advocacy director Erik Landfried. But Bike Durham isn’t the only player in this game.

The Erwin Road resurfacing plan is part of NCDOT’s five-year resurfacing program, which funds  the state road maintenance on a 5-year basis. 

The City of Durham is charged with reviewing Erwin Road and developing ideas for new surface design and traffic signals, and the state will repave guided by those recommendations. 

However, the state’s five-year resurfacing program only pays for basic maintenance; it does not include funding for projects beyond the existing curbs. That means cyclists’ hopes for sidewalk repair and construction of multi-use off-road paths are not on the docket during the current repaving, said DOT district engineer John Sandor. 

“It’s a possibility, but it would have to come with a different project, not a resurfacing project,” Sandor said.

Despite those roadblocks, the city still hopes to accommodate alternative transportation as Erwin is repaved. 

“We’re looking at the different scenarios where we can improve the operation to provide greater convenience or safety,” said Brian Taylor, transportation planner for the city. “For someone who’s riding a bus, maybe helping their bus arrive on time or if they’re riding a bike, actually have a bike lane or protected bike lane, or improving a crossing, whether that’s maybe making it a more visible crossing and reducing maybe a turning radius.”

But until DOT approves the resurfacing designs, the scenarios proposed by the city are not guaranteed.

The city originally proposed creating business access travel lanes, which are lanes designated for buses and cyclists. The lanes speed up bus transit by giving buses their own lane to move freely outside of automobile traffic. Those lanes also can be used by cyclists, removing them from the path of cars. 

However, DOT has specific traffic capacity guidelines that city recommendations must follow. A city consultant’s traffic analysis in May found that the shared bus and bicycle lanes would increase auto congestion beyond those guidelines and the proposal was sidelined.

“[The road] functions poorly today,” said Sandor. “There’s no spare capacity to give up without having tremendous impacts, and those will be negative.”

After that, many cyclists turned their attention to making smaller improvements on Erwin Road where they can, at least for now, said Landfried.

On a recent morning, the group met at the Old West Durham Cocoa Cinnamon, a local coffee shop with origins as a mobile coffee shop called bikeCoffee. Co-hosts Arleigh Greenwald and David Bradway welcomed five other attendees, most of whom rolled up on their bikes.

The group drew people of all ages and occupations; local bike-tivist Greenwald, wearing a cap emblazoned with her Twitter handle, “Bike Shop Girl”; Bradway, a Bike Durham member working at Duke University with a Ph.D, in biomedical engineering; Langston Alexander, a Duke master’s degree candidate; aspiring cyclist Karen Singleton from Cary; and Bennet, a loyal Bike Durham supporter. They sucked down iced coffee in the heat amidst debate over the possibility of sustainable transport in Durham.

Bikers have long complained about the lack of bike lanes on Erwin Road, which endangers even those cyclists who are brave enough to ride the road, they said.

“I know a lot of people that would bike to school, but they don’t because it’s intimidating, and it feels unsafe for them,” said Alexander, “which makes sense because there’s no bike lanes.”

As the ice cubes in their coffee melted, the group dug into the topic of strategy. “When you look at any movement or policy change,” said Greenwald, “you have to look at the dominoes—and which domino needs to fall.”

The cyclists are determined to make sure the city considers alternate forms of transportation in design plans for the road. And as the city moves into the public engagement part of its design process, things seem to be looking up.

“One of the things that we heard a lot on Erwin is that [city officials] haven’t heard otherwise. Nobody is complaining, nobody’s asking for better,” Greenwald said.

The city would like to move towards more sustainable transport, said Brian Taylor, the city transportation planner. In the case of Erwin Road, restriping may be the best option for now, he said. “They might be modest improvements because this is an NCDOT road,” Taylor said. “but we’re hoping to see some improvements for people bicycling, people crossing Erwin Road, and people riding the bus.”

Real change may take longer. But for the cyclists, the fight is still on. 

“It’s a mindset of cars first,” Landfried said, “and we reject that notion.”

On a recent morning, Greenwald led a walking audit of Erwin Road, to spot issues with the corridor and report them to the city. She snapped photos on her iPhone of cracked sidewalks,  skinny and scant bike lanes, and dirt covering walkways (which Bradway had spent an hour shoveling two nights before). She uploaded each into Durham OneCall, an app where citizens can report service requests. 

Behind her, sustainability advocate Jason Bennett pulled out a pair of gardening shears and began hacking at the branches that extend over the sidewalk, blocking the path for pedestrians and cyclists. The sun glinted off the blades as he completed the work he wanted to see done.

Editor’s note:  Bike Durham Community Meeting  about the Erwin Road corridor takes place July 11, 7-8:30 pm, Durty Bull Brewing, 206 Broadway Street. The City of Durham is also holding two pop-up events this week that focus on Erwin Road. The events take place July 12. 6:45 to 8:45 a.m. at the corner of Erwin Road and Fulton Street and July 13, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the corner of Erwin Road and LaSalle Street and the corner of Erwin Road Downing Street. 

Above (from top): A bike rests in a rack along Erwin Road. Photo by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal; Bike Durham member Jason Bennett trims branches along an Erwin Road sidewalk. Photo from the Durham Streets Twitter feed 

 

No Bull: Six questions about Durham’s famous sign

Sports Illustrated and Rotten Tomatoes (and many film critics) call it the best sports movie of all time. It’s got highly quotable characters, hilarious scenes and a hearty hometown feel to it. Thirty-four years ago this summer, the movie Bull Durham was released, transforming a relatively unknown minor league team into one of the most recognized names in all of professional baseball. 

The astronomical impact even got its director and screenwriter to write a book about it, released July 5, called “The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings, and a Hit,” referencing the opening narration by Annie Savoy (played by Susan Sarandon).

“I’ve tried ’em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball,” Savoy finishes her proclamation.

Today, when fans visit the Bulls at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, they see iconic landmarks, such as the Lucky Strike water tower on the American Tobacco campus behind the Blue Monster, and of course, a giant bull sign in left field that reads, “Hit Bull, Win Steak. Hit Grass, Win Salad.” But where did the Snorting Bull come from, and what does the movie have to do with it?

Does the sign actually appear in the film?

Yes. The bull shows up in only one scene, where a character named Burt Crook from the Fayetteville Generals (an actual minor league team that played until the 1996 season) hits it.

In the scene, Bulls catcher Crash Davis (played by Kevin Costner) orders up a curveball from Ebby Calvin LaLoosh, aka “Nuke,” a hot-headed newcomer who thinks he’s smarter than the veteran catcher. Nuke serves up a fastball that Crook belts for a homer, striking the Snorting Bull sign that stands next to other billboards. 

“Look at that, he hit the f****ing bull,” says Davis, laughing at Nuke after the home run. “Guy gets a free steak.”

What was the idea behind the sign?

In the movie, the other outfield billboards—for a famous sports company, a cologne, and two Durham newspapers (one of which is now defunct)—represented actual businesses, but the bull sign was simply a nod to another iconic baseball sign: Abe Stark’s “Hit Sign, Win Suit” at Ebbets Field, where the Brooklyn Dodgers played until they moved to Los Angeles in 1957. Batters whose home runs struck the sign earned a free suit at Stark’s Pritkin Avenue clothing store.

 “Abe Stark became kind of a local personality,” said Bull Durham’s director and screenwriter Ron Shelton, in an interview with The 9th Street Journal, during which he recalled how he came up with the idea for the sign. “I read about all this. I wasn’t Brooklyn-born. So I always had that in the back of my mind. When I got there—the ballpark, the old Durham Athletic Park—I just was looking up over the right-field fence, and there was that mound of grass, and I thought, what a perfect place to do a minor league version of that. It wasn’t in the script. I added it once I got there.”

He added: “It’s fun in that….kind of vaudeville, show business aspect of the minor leagues. You know the bull snorted and the tail wagged and the eyes lit up and you know—it’s just a kind of minor league feel to it.”

How did it end up at the ballpark?

After production concluded, Shelton and the crew left the sign for the real-life Bulls as a memento. When the Durham Bulls moved to the newer ballpark at the American Tobacco Campus in 1995, a version of the Snorting Bull came with them. Tom Evans of the Syracuse Mets was the first player to hit the sign, on May 26, 1998. Scott McCain was the first Bull to do so, later that summer on Aug. 16. 

Is it the same sign as the original?

No. The bull from the movie was demoted to being on display in 1995 when the team moved to the new ballpark, while a new bull replaced the prop on the field. A third sign replaced the second one in 2008 after wind gusts tore the replica’s head off. Today, the current bull reads “Hit Bull, Win Steak. Hit Grass, Win Salad.” The original sign is in storage.

Do the players really win steak?

Yes. But only Bulls players get to cash in their prize, which they do at Angus Barn, a steakhouse in Raleigh, thanks to a partnership between the American Tobacco Campus and the restaurant. Players who hit the bull part of the sign get a $100 gift card to buy any steak or meal on the menu. 

(Players who hit the grass part win a free salad at the restaurant.)

“The Goodmon family [owners of the Durham Bulls] came up and said, ‘Would you guys like to do something?’” said Steve Thanhauser, co-owner of Angus Barn, in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “…That bull is out there in the outfield….it’s said forever, ‘Hit Bull, Win Steak.’ And so we said, ‘Well, let us provide the steak.’”

Typically, players go to the restaurant the next day or pretty soon after hitting the sign. However, the steak/salad offer still stands even if they don’t redeem it right away. 

How often do players hit the bull?

Not often. In fact, entire seasons sometimes go by without a player launching a ball over the left field wall. 

“That’s a tough one to kind of plan on [hitting the bull]. You kind of just take homers, and wherever they go, you’ll just take as a hitter,” said Mike Brosseau, a Milwaukee Brewers infielder who played for the Bulls during parts of the 2019 and 2021 seasons. (He hit the sign last season.) 

“That’s one of the home runs in my career that probably sticks out a lot,” Brosseau said. “And, yeah, it was just one of those things that I think I was slumping pretty hard, and during that time when I hit that home run….I don’t know. Maybe that helped me turn the corner a little bit.”

Last summer, two Bulls actually struck the sign in successive at-bats in their Aug. 19 game against the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. Josh Lowe (who now plays for the Tampa Bay Rays, the Bulls’ major-league affiliate) hit it first, pounding the grass to win a salad. Brosseau swung next and thumped the bull. Several days later, the two went to Angus Barn together to reap their rewards. Brosseau ordered the ribeye.

Above: The famous Bull sign reigns over Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Photo by Ana Young — The 9th Street Journal. 

Banana peels and pizza crusts: City pilot program turns food scraps into compost

Browning banana peels, decaying fishbones, crumbling pizza crusts. These ingredients may not seem appetizing to most, but to seedlings hungry for fertile soil, they’re the stuff of a gourmet meal. 

A city food waste collection program in the Walltown neighborhood has redirected more than four and a half tons of waste from landfills since it launched just six months ago. Through a curbside pickup system, the pilot program processes food scraps from 80 Walltown households and returns them to the environment as rich compost.

Every Thursday evening, small black carts line the streets of Walltown. One of these belongs to Hafeez Dalla and his partner, Carina Barnett-Loro, who joined the program when recruitment efforts began in late 2021. Neighbors often inquire about the container, they said.

“Actually, a lot of people have come up to us and said, ‘Oh, what’s that? I haven’t seen it before’,” said Barnett-Loro, sitting on her back porch which overlooks her fruitful garden. Some of those neighbors have since signed up, she said, eager to make their neighborhood a greener place. 

The program represents a collaboration between the city, a local company and Duke researchers. The city collects the food waste and delivers it to Atlas Organics, a company that converts the scraps to compost. This final product is sold to gardeners and landscapers and also distributed for free at occasional public giveaway events, such as a June 11 Compost Giveaway at the Briggs Avenue Community Garden. The city will work with Atlas Organics to host another event in the fall. 

Melissa Southern, who first began composting in 2019 to nourish her garden beds, was also excited to see the project serve her community. “It seems that Walltown does not typically get picked for these kinds of pilots,” she said. “I love that our neighborhood was chosen, and to see it do so well and so many people participate is really…it’s encouraging.” 

Southern lives in Walltown with her husband and one-year-old, and has seen her household’s garbage output shrink to just a third of what it once was. 

“We went from maybe three trash bags a week or two trash bags a week, to one a week,” she said. “And I think that’s really impressive.” 

The pilot project was originally intended to run for just 12 weeks, according to Wayne Fenton, the city’s assistant director of solid waste. But when the trial period was up, all participants opted to continue curbside food waste collection. 

The environmental benefits of composting extend beyond improving soil health and conserving water. By keeping food waste out of landfills, composting helps curb methane emissions that contribute heavily to global warming. Nevertheless, some deterrents keep people from taking up the practice: for instance, the odor. 

Dalla recalled a recent party he and Barnett-Loro hosted in which composting played a role. 

We had a party here not that long ago, and we got all compostable plates and cups and stuff and thought it’d be great if everyone just put their stuff in the compost. And it was…I don’t think we anticipated just how stinky the bin had gotten over time,” he said, chuckling. “But, you know, we hosed it out, and it was fine.” 

Despite this minor hiccup, the couple has enjoyed their experience. “We love the program. We’d love for it to get expanded for all of Durham,” said Dalla.

To run smoothly, the program relies on psychology as much as earth science. In order to motivate and sustain the habit of composting, the city collaborates with the Duke Center for Advanced Hindsight to formulate strategies and messaging. The city issued countertop food waste collection bins with acceptable items illustrated clearly on the front and also encouraged participants to download the Durham Rollout app, which sends weekly reminders about food waste pickup days. 

Lyndsay Gavin, innovation project manager for the city, says programs such as the Walltown pilot may encourage environmentally friendly behaviors in other areas of life and foster engagement with one’s community. 

“Does collection of your food scraps in the morning make you think about turning your thermostat down or reducing your water use, or some other kind of pro-environmental behaviors that we would consider spillover from participation in this?” she said. 

“And then, even beyond environmentalism, this is a city-run municipal service that’s being brought to you. So does that also make you think more about belonging to your community or engagement with your local government?

Project leaders are currently scouting out a new candidate area for phase two of the project, which is expected to kick off in mid-August. The second phase will reach  roughly 500 households, in addition to the 80 still receiving service in Walltown. In this phase, researchers from the city and the Duke center will analyze how much waste is diverted from landfill. They will also assess whether behavioral interventions reduce contamination of the compost and will conduct surveys and interviews to gauge participants’ attitudes towards the program. 

Barnett-Loro is optimistic that her vegetable peelings and coffee grounds are making a difference. “I think it is, from a behavioral change standpoint, one of those daily reminders of, you know, this is the kind of the impact that I’m having,” she said.

Above: Hafeez Dalla and Carina Barnett-Loro are taking part in the city’s pilot food waste collection program. Photo by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal 

A Durham Moment: ‘Instead of cake, we’re having ice cream.’

The sunset is hazy above the downtown skyline, and the heat still beats down on the asphalt street. The humidity isn’t choking, as it usually is in North Carolina summers, but it is certainly hot enough to warrant a trip out for ice cream with family and friends—especially when it’s free.

It is the summer solstice–June 21st–but more importantly, it is Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream’s annual First Day of Summer Party, awarding a free scoop to those who join their rewards program. The famous ice cream franchise recently opened its first Durham location in the Brightleaf District, and so tonight is its grand opening, too.

At 6:55 p.m.,the line already wraps around the building, and through the parking lot. The store is typically hidden from the street, tucked away behind Goorsha Ethiopian restaurant and around the back of Shooters II nightclub. The only evidence of its presence are the ceiling string lights that decorate its outdoor seating area and the tips of illuminated letters spelling out the store’s name poking up above the buildings. Tonight, however, the shop has drawn a crowd visible from down the block. And it isn’t even open yet.

Children dart about like dragonflies, weaving through the clumps of customers-to-be and making new friends, as children typically do. They ask their parents, who wait lazily in the heat, why the ice cream is taking so long, naïve to the fact that tonight is a special night.

The first 50 customers in line receive placards to commemorate their punctuality and dedication to the noble cause of free ice cream, and standing proudly with number one is Hadja Thiam.

Hadja is a connoisseur of the company’s gourmet ice cream. Hadja, a nurse practitioner at Duke University, was hooked on Jeni’s the instant she tried it. With the closest store all the way in Charlotte, however, she was left with no choice but to order herself pints once (or twice) a month from the company’s website. They would arrive on her doorstep in large orange boxes, surrounded by dry ice like jewels in a treasure chest of gold.

Now, with the opening of the Durham location, Hadja only has to travel a few steps beyond the doorstep. Store employees crowned her with a bright orange trucker hat, emblazoned with white letters reading, “I was first in line at Jeni’s!” And at 7 p.m., when the doors open, Hadja jumps right through, pumping her fists triumphantly. 

As the night goes on, the line only gets longer. The promise of a free single scoop (usually $5.95 a pop) draws ice cream fanatics from all over. Claire is number 6 in line, and she traveled from Carrboro just for the event. Toni, number 12, drove from Cary to visit the location where her son works, and for the chance to try some new flavors. The deal even captured the attention of blue-haired Astrid, number 49, who claims to be loyal to East Durham’s Two Roosters Ice Cream. However, even the most loyal can be turned. 

“The coffee [flavor] is literally out of this world,” raved Astrid about “Coffee with Cream and Sugar.” “Like, I don’t understand how it is so good. It’s not like any other coffee ice cream I’ve ever had.”

Jeni’s was originally founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 2002 by entrepreneur and ice-cream-queen Jeni Britton Bauer. As of 2022, it has expanded to 19 cities, from Durham, to Houston, to Tampa, to Nashville, and so on.

The franchise prides itself on its handmade ice cream with unique flavors. Some fan favorites include Brown Butter Almond Brittle, Pineapple Upside Down Cake, and Sweet Cream Biscuits and Peach Jam. 

The company does have some custard competition in Durham. Places like Two Roosters and the Parlour have local loyalists that could be turned off by the fact that Jeni’s is a chain and a newcomer to Durham. Corporate employee Dan Sierzputowski claims they have had no such trouble, though. “It is a great town,” said Dan, dressed in a green Jeni’s T-shirt and a gleaming smile. “The city has been welcoming to us, customers have been welcoming to us. We could see the town was just exploding.”

As darkness falls, the air cools, but the party is still heating up. For three hours, the line snakes around the patio to the back of the parking lot. By 8:30 p.m., about 150 people crowd the block. The limited outdoor seating, an amalgamation of abstract-style benches and quaint wooden tables, forces some customers to enjoy their ice cream standing or in the popped trunks of their cars. 

Dogs pant out the nighttime heat in the parking lot, some being lucky enough to get their own whipped white desserts to devour. High school girls gossip in between licks of Lavender, old friends catch up over a cone of Chocolate Sheet Cake, parents take a break with Brambleberry Crisp while their toddlers gorge themselves on Gooey Butter Cake. The night is still young.

Standing at the corner of the patio are Matt and Kara. She sports a pink Jeni’s shirt and has been buying pints of the stuff at Whole Foods for years, ordering online when she can’t get to a store. Matt, Kara’s fiance, noticed this passion and took it to the next level for his partner. When he asked Kara to marry him, he brought Jeni’s along.

The lovebirds ate cups of the sweet dessert after Kara said yes, and even took their engagement photos outside the original Jeni’s in Ohio. The two are finally tying the knot this weekend at a North Carolina beach, but they plan on pushing the boundaries a bit to honor their love (of ice cream).

“Instead of cake,” Kara said,  “we’re having ice cream.”

Above (from Top): Crowds await a free scoop; Hadja Thiam is first in line; and Matt and Kara united over ice cream. Photos by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal 

On Juneteenth, Stagville’s past lives on at historic site — and in descendants’ memories

The Union soldiers had come down Old Oxford Road, chasing Confederate soldiers out of Stagville Plantation. They arrived at Stagville’s Horton Grove, which at the time was home to some 900 enslaved people.

“They told my great aunt, ‘Fix us some food,’” Ricky L. Hart says, repeating a story passed down to him in his youth. “So, the soldiers had this long feast. In the end, the soldiers finished eating and drinking coffee, and they were like, ‘Y’all free.’”

That’s how enslaved people at Stagville, one of the largest slave plantations in North Carolina, learned that they had been freed, recalls Hart, 59, a Durham native and fifth-generation Stagville descendent.

On a balmy summer day, as Durham readies for the Juneteenth holiday, Hart discusses what emancipation meant to his relatives 157 years ago.

When they heard that the Union soldiers were coming, some enslaved people threw parties, including at Stagville. Others didn’t know what to make of the news, Hart says.

“Because, for six, seven, eight generations before you, the plantation was all you knew. You didn’t know what freedom was.” 

Stagville is an immense property, he notes. Those forty-three square miles would’ve made fleeing a nearly impossible task.

“They didn’t have any concept of how big it was,” Hart says. “If you ran, you only ran for three or four miles. Then you stopped and walked. You still had 40 miles to go. So, you could be walking for weeks and still be on the site.”

And so, the Hart family stayed on after emancipation. Several members arranged share-cropping agreements with the Camerons. This guaranteed food for their families and offered the possibility of land ownership. The family resided in the Hart House—which Hart refers to as “number 13.”

When you arrive at Horton Grove, the Hart House is the first thing that you see. It stands out—the only painted house in the group adorned with a terracotta-colored metal roof. It was a multi-family home. Ricky Hart’s relatives cohabitated in the house in the early twentieth century.

“When you get upstairs, there’s a room to the right, and then there’s one to the left,” Hart says. “My grandfather, Willis and his family lived downstairs for a while. And his brother, Ephraim, lived upstairs with his family. So it’s like you got all these people living there. Your wife and your six children—all in one room.”

Hart’s uncle, Ephraim, was the last to leave the Hart House, departing in 1975 to resettle elsewhere. And long afterward, for ten years, Hart relatives held annual family reunions here. “I still got pictures and sign-in sheets… all kinds of stuff. The staff at Stagville were always glad to have us,” Hart says. 

 In 1976, the Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company, which owned the land after the Bennehans sold it, donated it to the state. This circumstance birthed Historic Stagville as a North Carolina State Historic Site, where the Hart name comes up again and again in the site’s “Emancipation Tours.”  

***

The tours begin at the visitor’s center. To escape the clammy Carolina air, attendees trickle into a dimly-lit green shed. Among them are well-meaning parents, curious children and teenagers and an interpreter-in-training. The gift shop showcases books such as Nikole Hannah-Jones’ The 1619 Project and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, along with soaps, lotions and candles from a local black-owned business. Thumb-tacked grayscale portraits of Stagville inhabitants are accompanied by brief biographies of the residents.

Vera Cecelski, the site manager and guide, ushers the assembly outside to embark on the emancipation tour. 

***

The tour starts at the Bennehan-Cameron family home, in the center of Stagville, a colonial framed structure with white columns, red-bricked chimneys and a gray, shingled roof.

Before the end of the Civil War, the Bennehan and Cameron families lived here, supervising slave activities and imposing cruel punishments. As the war drew to a close, for many enslaved people, freedom was a life or death wager. On a neighboring plantation, a young girl named Sarah witnessed Confederate soldiers threatening her family members, Cecelski says.

“She said they took each man in the yard, held them at gunpoint and asked them if they wanted to be free,” Cecelski says. “Sarah watched the murders of three of her uncles that day because they dared to tell these soldiers that they wanted their freedom.”

***

After emancipation, the Cameron family moved on from Stagville. But the name has not disappeared from the area.  Towards the end of the tour, a participant asks, “So, a lot of the places in the Triangle with Cameron names come from this family? Like the Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke?” The crowd giggles.

Cameron Indoor Stadium is actually named for a different Cameron family from outside North Carolina, Cecelski says. But the Cameron family that owned the Stagville plantation – that name persists, even as Confederate statues have fallen in Durham and on the UNC Campus.

“You can still see the Cameron name—probably the most prominent place is in Chapel Hill,” Cecelski says. “Cameron Avenue runs through campus and is named for Paul Cameron, who was the single largest slave-holder here at the time of the Civil War.”

***

Back at Horton Grove, Cecelski concludes the tour, standing in a grassy plot adjacent to Old Oxford Highway,   a plot Ricky Hart remembers once was planted entirely in tobacco. 

“When you leave today, whatever route you drive away from this place, you’re probably following one of the old roads or paths—roads that families took as they left this place and tried to find one where they could access true freedom,” Cecelski says. “So, I invite you to carry with you the following thought: if you head to almost any of the cities nearby—Durham, Raleigh—you’re heading to a place that has been shaped, in some way, by freed people.”

Ricky L. Hart, and so many others, she says, live to tell the tale.

***

On June 18, Historic Stagville, 5828 Old Oxford Highway, will hold its 15th annual Juneteenth commemoration. The site also will continue guided Emancipation Tours on June 19 and 25.

Above: Stagville descendant Ricky Hart, photo by Ana Young — The 9th Street Journal

Center and below: The Hart House in Stagville’s Horton Grove; glimpses of former residents on a Stagville bulletin board,;and paths lead away from Horton Grove. Photos by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal